If one makes the effort this Shabbat and sneaks a peak in the Torah scroll at the first word in this week’s Torah portion, you will notice that the last letter of the first word of Leviticus, Vayikra, is written with a small aleph. Many theories have been offered for this anomaly, with the most famous one alluding to an ancient Jewish educational policy. According to rabbinic tradition, attested to in a number of sources, the first book of the Torah to which young Jewish children were introduced was the book of Vayikra. In place of opening the educational enterprise with the “exciting” narratives of Genesis or Exodus, our tradition indicates that children were exposed to the more legal and technical aspects of the sacrificial laws. Why did the communities in antiquity believe that children should first become acquainted with this material and only subsequently move back to the foundational narratives of the Torah?
On one level, one might argue that the concrete details and rules that are the woof and warp of the first part of the book of Leviticus are perfect fodder for young minds who love details and rules and can quickly absorb these details without much questioning or fanfare. In contrast, the early narratives of Genesis truly require more deep and sophisticated thinking, and need to wait for further intellectual and cognitive development of the young child. However, another angle to address this phenomenon seems to emerge from a careful study of our section.
One of the most striking phrases in the very first verse, that we today take for granted, is the seemingly innocuous words: “Speak to the Israelites”. As the late and lamented Jacob Milgram noted in his magnum opus on Leviticus: “The entire sacrificial system, though its operation is solely the job of the priests, should be revealed and taught to all Israelites. These opening words expose the gaping chasm that separates Israel from its neighbors…. a Mesopotamian ritual text states that the commoner was barred not only from viewing the ritual but from (even) viewing the text of the ritual…. In Egypt as well, the people did not participate in any of the daily acts of the divine service… nor were they permitted access to the ritual texts…. Ancient Israel broke with this tradition: ‘The Torah commanded us by Moses is the heritage of the congregation of Jacob’ (Deut. 33:4)… the plethora of laws in Leviticus exclusively concerned with the priestly duties are, in the main, taught to Israel… the priest manual… is not an esoteric doctrine, the zealously guarded secret of the priestly guild, but an open book or more accurately a school textbook for all Israel” (Leviticus, Anchor Bible, Vol. 1:143-4).
This sustained corpus of law presented here as emanating from the Tent of Meeting is not a hidden Torah only accessible to the “initiated” or those who are of the elite. Every Jew, from young to old, has access to the Torah, even to the most technical and complex areas of Torah, as it is part of God’s special revelation to the Jewish people. It is through study and meditation on the words of the law that we come closer to God in our everyday life. From the very beginning of the child’s educational journey, that message of “speak to all the Israelites” is subtly conveyed to ensure that indeed all of Israel is the recipient of God’s munificence.
The Hebrew word “korban” is not accurately translated as “sacrifice” but is based on the Hebrew root “karav,” to come close, as the offerings described here are vehicles and instruments to come closer to the Divine and grow spiritually. Today, in the absence of the korbanot, one of the main vehicles for coming closer to God is Torah study. Today and every day is a great opportunity to sign up for a Torah class at your local synagogue, JCC, or even just arrange with a friend to engage in some weekly or, ideally, daily Torah study. As we say in the liturgy, “Come, taste, and see how good” is the experience of coming into the precincts of God. Expand your horizons, open your mind to new ideas and join in the conversation that starts with a little aleph but can reach the very heavens.